The Scottish Visitors: Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell

Sir Henry Raeburn 1756–1823, Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (1771–1828), about 1812, Oil on canvas, 241.9 x 151.1 cm (95¼ x 59½ in), Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Purchased 1917 (NG420).

Sir Henry Raeburn 1756–1823, Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (1771–1828), about 1812, Oil on canvas, 95¼ x 59½ inches, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Purchased 1917 (NG420).

There’s a full cast of characters in Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland—everyone from a Tahitian temptress painted by Paul Gauguin, to a rowdy Dutchman by Frans Hals. But there are also plenty of Scots, and once a week we'll highlight one of them by excerpting a section from the exhibition catalog, available for purchase in the Museum Store.

Sir Henry Raeburn 1756–1823, Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (1771–1828), about 1812

By 1810, when he reconnoitred in London with a view to taking over John Hoppner’s former studio, Raeburn was the doyen of contemporary Scottish portraitists. Although he soon decided against a permanent relocation, he maintained a strong metropolitan profile, courting southern patronage by exhibiting annually at the Royal Academy, London, until his death in 1823. His loyalty to the Academy, where he had made his London debut in 1792, was rewarded with election as Associate in 1812 and Academician in 1815. Back in Scotland, he was lionised as ‘the first Scottish portrait painter of eminence who settled in his native country’.

At the Academy’s annual exhibition of 1812, Raeburn’s principal contribution was this flamboyant full-length portrait of Macdonell of Glengarry, commissioned for the sitter’s hereditary seat at Invergarry Castle in Inverness-shire. The epitome of anachronistic and atavistic Highland chieftainship, this is a statement picture – arguably as much about the artist’s own status as that of his quixotic patron. But Raeburn’s composition may well have been conceived as a pendant to Angelica Kauffman’s equally monumental Highland dress portrait of Macdonell for which he had posed in Rome in 1800 while on the Grand Tour of Europe. Both portraits post-dated the repeal in 1782 of the Disarming Act (1746) outlawing the wearing of the tartan. With the sole exception of Highland regi¬ments serving in the British army, this prohibition had been universally imposed after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745.

Descended from the Lords of the Isles and a scion of Clan Donald, Macdonell inherited the Glengarry chieftainship in 1788. Like Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, he raised a regiment (the Glengarry Fencibles) for the British Crown in 1794 at a time of national crisis occasioned by the French Revolutionary wars. Even in his maturity, however, the impulsive and autocratic Glengarry was paradoxical. A member of the Highland Society of London from 1797 and a passionate advocate of a vanishing Highland way of life and social structure, he retained a family bard and travelled with a ‘tail’ of clansmen. Yet he reneged on promises to resettle his disbanded Fencibles, forcing many into emigration to Canada, and evicted other tenants to clear his lands for sheep farming.

A British patriot despite his Jacobite ancestry, Glengarry was the probable inspiration for the character of the doomed Jacobite chieftain Fergus McIvor in the novel Waverley (1814) by Sir Walter Scott, a personal friend. Whether Macdonell posed at Invergarry or, more plausibly, under the controlled lighting of the artist’s Edinburgh studio, his complex self-image is reflected in his melodramatic demeanour and telling accessories – from the powder horn, studded targe (shield) and basket-hilted sword of a bygone era to the hunting rifle of a modern sporting aristocrat devoted to deerstalking and the preservation of the Scottish deerhound.

Recognised within Raeburn’s lifetime as one of his finest achievements and later as one of the defining historic British images of Highland chieftainship, this charismatic picture has fascinated artists and writers with its elusive combination of restraint and composure, panache and bravura, overlaid with almost palpable nostalgia. Raeburn’s magnificent earlier Highland icon Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (cat.24), dating from the turn of the eighteenth century, was on continuous loan to the National Galleries of Scotland from 1910, but did not become available for public purchase until 1967. This surely had a bearing on the Trustees’ resolve to purchase the Macdonell portrait outright in 1917, the vendor being the sitter’s great-grandson John Alister Erskine Cunninghame of Balgownie. - Helen Smailes

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